Branded a coward for surrendering his New Mexico fort to the Confederates without firing a shot, a Union colonel attempts to redeem himself by leading a band of condemned prisoners on a suicide mission to recapture it.
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Una ragione per vivere e una per morire (AKA: A Reason to Live, A Reason to Die & Massacre at Fort Holman) is directed by Tonino Valerii, who also co-writes with Rafael Azcona and Ernesto Gastaldi. It stars James Coburn, Telly Savalas & Bud Spencer. Cinematographer is Alejandro Ulloa and the music is scored by Riz Ortolani. Plot sees Coburn as Union Colonel Pembroke, who during the Civil War is given a rag-tag group of criminals to go win back the fort he lost to Confederate Major Frank Ward (Savalas). For him it's a chance to regain his honour, for them it's a chance to avoid execution for their crimes.
Joplin Gazette, Joplin Missouri, April 10, 1872
---Today I walked through the ruins of what was once Fort Holman. 10 years ago, this Civil War fortress, thought to be impregnable, was destroyed by a wild bunch of marauders. Eli Sampson, a survivor of that massacre, revealed in an interview that the raid was the result of a blood feud between two bitter men: Colonel Pembroke, a Union officer, thought to be a traitor and a coward, led the mission to recapture the fort he had once surrendered. Major Ward, a ruthless "Mad Genius," who joined the Confederacy solely to gain command of Fort Holman, so that he could rule the vast surrounding Santa Fe territory after the war. But what motivates these two men and what caused this incredible blood bath, was explained by Eli Sampson in the story that follows---
It's a written opening that grabs the attention straight away, it has all the promise of a spaghetti western done Peckinpah style. Then early in proceedings a grizzled James Coburn walks along a line of men about to be hanged, being introduced to them and calmly wondering if said scum-bags would like to stave off execution by accompanying him on a suicide mission? OK, it's derivative of The Dirty Dozen five years earlier, but if this is blending Peckinpah with Robert Aldrich at his best then it will be worth every second spent with it. Sadly it doesn't come close to living up to that particular promise. But it does have points of worth within.
If you are willing to invest some patience with the slow narrative and get to the carnage finale unscathed? Then it's actually worth the wait as regards action. There's also some fine photography from Ulloa around Almeria in Spain, while Ortolani's soundtrack score blends well in context to the story. However, away from Coburn the acting is sub-standard, especially from Savalas who is miscast, while some suspension of disbelief is needed once the group reach the fort. But all in all it's a safe recommend to fans of Westerns, spaghetti or otherwise. And certainly a must for Coburn fans. 6.5/10
Footnote: The full cut of the film now runs at just shy of two hours in length, film buyers should ensure that they buy home format discs that run at around the 113/114 minute mark.
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